Creative writing degree in Hong Kong at the forefront of English literature

Creative writing degree in Hong Kong at the forefront of English literature

Acclaimed Hong Kong author Xu Xi leads a new MFA in creative writing that may change the game of English fiction forever
Hong Kong creative writing program
Hong Kong author Xu Xi.

If Asian writing in English is the “greatest development in English literature of the last 50 years,” as University of Hong Kong professor Douglas Kerr claims, then Hong Kong could very well be at the vanguard of English lit in the coming half-century.

This summer will mark the first anniversary of City University’s two-year Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing, which bills itself as “the only program in the world with a specific focus on Asian writing.”

Led by respected local author Xu Xi, the program features an international faculty and a class of 22 students from Hong Kong, China, India, Australia, the United States and the Philippines.

“I’ve been surprised by the students’ joy at what is possible, of treating Asia as something they can talk about, something that isn’t exotic,” says Xu, who is also on the faculty of Vermont College of Fine Arts in the United States.

“They get exposed to everything from Alan Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ to translated Bengali poetry.”

Unapologetically Asian

That alone sets the course apart from most other creative writing programs, such as the University of Iowa’s highly-regarded Writers' Workshop.

“What happens when you’re in Iowa is that you’re the only Chinese student there and everyone is like, ‘What you wrote about dim sum is so interesting,'” says Xu. “And the program would be overly influenced by what the U.S. domestic market reads, which is not what the rest of the world consumes.”

Asian writers operate with a different set of references and expectations to writers from Anglophone countries, says Xu, which raises the possibility that some of the literature that is so heavily emphasized elsewhere, such as American-style short stories, might not be as relevant to aspiring Asian writers as, say, traditional Chinese storytelling.

Hong Kong creative writing programMadeleine Thien, one of the faculty's frequent travelers. “What binds a lot of the students together is that they are writing in English, but they are bringing multiple perspectives to the work,” says Canadian novelist Madeleine Thien, who teaches at the program.

“A lot of them have grown up with many languages, but they are trying to transmit all of that experience through English. That’s a very particular challenge for them.”

Along with Thien, the program’s faculty is well-stocked with acclaimed writers, including American poets Marilyn Chin and Tina Chang, Indian author Sharmistha Mohanty and Hong Kong novelist Justin Hill.

Nomadic teachers

One of the reasons Xu was able to assemble such a diverse cast of writers is because the City U program is low-residency, meaning that much of the teaching is done remotely.

“For someone really nomadic, this is the best possible program, because I’m never in any one place for more than a few months,” says Thien, who is normally based in Montreal, but is currently staying in Beirut and plans to live in Berlin later this year.

Because of its low-residency nature, says renowned Filipino author Jose “Butch” Dalisay, “it enables writers from all over the region to work for an MFA without having to stay too long in Hong Kong. And it's being taught by seasoned professionals not just from HK but from all over the world, so it offers everyone -- students and faculty alike -- more options, which might not have been possible with more traditional programs.”

Dalisay teaches at the University of the Philippines Diliman, which offers a full range of undergraduate, graduate and post-graduate creative writing programs.

Outside the Philippines and Hong Kong, though, there are no other creative writing MFA programs in the region.

“The fact that it's being offered in Asia is another big plus, in that it would not only be cheaper than a live-in program in the U.S. or Europe, but would also be more culturally attuned to the region's realities,” says Dalisay. “I think it's a great development, that we no longer have to keep looking to or depending on the West for instruction and approval.”

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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